The phrase “church choir” typically conjures images of blue-haired ladies in unflattering polyester robes, intoning us to repent for our sings through song. But like every other aspect of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, the MCC Choir loves to challenge preconceptions. As diverse as the membership of the church itself, the volunteer group lends their pipes to weekly services.
“Most people think church choir and they think of the olden days,” says musical director Diane Leah. “Men outnumber women in our group, though it’s a great balance. It’s way different than anyone would think a church choir would look.”
The group’s musical palette is as diverse as its membership. Their upcoming concert, timed to coincide with the release of their third CD, These Old Walls, features a handful of standards like “Amazing Grace,” mixed with decidedly un-churchy tunes from The Nylons, The Mamas & The Papas and Spamalot.
“We like to put our own spin on things,” Leah says. “The idea is to entertain, not ram theology down people’s throats. The acoustics of the space are also amazing. The CBC actually used to use it for classical recordings.”
The evening raises money for the organization’s diverse programming. That includes its services for queer refugees, who are often fleeing their countries under fear of death, to whom MCCT provides assistance on all manner of integration issues.
“Coming to Canada from certain parts of Africa or the Middle East is like landing on Mars,” Leah says. “Just getting basic information can be hard for people when they arrive here. It’s also important to make social connections. Being in a new country without your family is pretty lonely.”
Though many gays and lesbians have a bad history with religion, Leah stresses that shouldn’t keep them away from the event or the organization itself. The congregation is made up of people from all Christian denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims and other faiths, and Leah sees it as one of the most open and accepting spaces in the city.
“We get a lot of people who’ve been really abused by religion that find a place with us, and they actually have a chance to let go of some of that pain,” she says. “It’s not about proselytizing or trying to convert people to a certain way of thinking. It’s about creating a safe, welcoming space where people are accepted exactly as they are.”
A self-described “rocker chick” from Montreal, Leah had her own suspicions about working with the organization when she first started. Already an accomplished musician who’d worked with the likes of Jackie Richardson and Louise Pitre, she thought she was just helping out for a few months. Thirteen years later, she’s still around.
“I didn’t have any religious background and I was actually really creeped-out by the thought of working in a church,” she says. “It was so alien from anything I ever thought I’d be doing. I never thought I’d be a church lady, but I guess I got hooked on it. It’s been pretty amazing.”